The name spoke to the best connoisseurs. It occupies a place of choice: it is the first city in all the work of the writer. The dedication of Proust’s first book, Pleasures and Days, published in 1896 begins with: “To my friend Willie Heath / Died in Paris on October 3, 1893“.
Chance wanted that two Proustians retrace at the same time, and without knowing it, the life of this forgotten letters. On the one hand Thierry Laget, writer, author of Proust, Goncourt Prize (2019), who is working on a new book dedicated to the novelist. On the other hand, Pyra Wise, research engineer at the CNRS, member of the research team on Proust.
“I was very surprised to find that so little was known about Willie Heath, as about other comrades of Proust, when he seemed to me an important character “, explains the latter. Both first establish the civil status of this young Parisian, and discover that his mother’s birth name is Elisabeth Bond Swan.
“Swan, like Swann … As well Pyra as me, when we understood it, we jumped to the ceiling ! “, tells AFP Thierry Laget, who conducted this research from his home in Montreal (Canada).
Charles Swann is a central figure in the romantic cycle In Search of Lost Time. The first volume, On the side of Swann’s, takes its name from this elegant Parisian socialite, who fascinates the narrator, Marcel.
No connection had ever been made between Heath and Swann. Some thought that Heath had not even existed, that Proust had invented a fictional friend with a touching fate for the sole purpose of writing a beautiful dedication. Many were satisfied with what another friend of Proust’s, Pierre Lavallée had said: Willie was a “young english“met with a common acquaintance, Father Vignot.
False: Heath was American, born in Queens (New York) in 1869, two years before Proust. Died of enteritis at only 24, he is buried in Brooklyn. All these discoveries were presented by Thierry Laget in an article in early March on the Proustonomics website. It was there that Pyra Wise learned that another had drawn conclusions, just like her, that she expected to be made public. The article, now co-signed, was amended on March 22.
“The characters in the Research come from multiple sources, and always contain a bit of Marcel himself. Proust spoke on the subject: he did not like people saying that the Baron de Charlus was Robert de Montesquiou. This element of biography does not revolutionize the understanding of the work, but adds a layer of knowledge, atmosphere“, emphasizes the researcher.
The brief existence of Willie Heath was marked by a golden exile a stone’s throw from the Champs-Elysées, due to his father William’s quarrels with the American justice system. This financial tycoon involved in the gold market manipulation scandal in 1869 died dishonored, but saved his wife and children from ruin.
A mystery remains: Were he and Proust only friends, or lovers? According to Thierry Laget, “Willie Heath was in the same milieu of Proust at that time, that of high finance and friends of the arts. Going to the Louvre every day was part of their social activities. He was therefore a youthful friend linked to him by culture, and perhaps a little more than that: but that, we cannot know“.
“I think he is more than that, otherwise Proust would not have dedicated his first book to him with such tender words. We also know that he kept his photo very close to him. These are signs of a long loyalty to, dare we say it, a love of youth“, considers the writer.
Source site www.francetvinfo.fr